Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Papias And The Gospels

On some recent webcasts, James White responded to a video produced by a couple of Muslim apologists, Adnan Rashid and Hamza Tzortzis. The video is largely about the historical reliability of the gospels, and much of their discussion of the subject focuses on Papias. Similar arguments about Papias are commonly used by atheists and other critics of Christianity, not just Muslims. I've written a response on Facebook.


  1. Jason - have you read Michael Kok's _The Gospel on the Margins_?


    This seems to be an extensive argument for the Early Church falsely attributing Mark to John-Mark to legitimize it. Summary here:


    You have some of the best material on Gospel authorship and the Patristics so I'd be really interested to see you interact with this work.

    1. How would attributing the first Gospel to Mark legitimize it? Mark was a minor figure in the early church. Indeed, it's his Gospel that made him famous, not the other way around.

    2. If Mark didn't have a Gospel named after him, he'd be quickly forgotten. Barely merit a footnote in church history. He wasn't an apostle or relative of Jesus. So I don't see any motivation for the early church to falsely attribute the first Gospel to Mark in order to legitimize it.

    3. There's a whole section on that in the review on Κέλσος, where he interacts with Blomberg and the standard apologetic argument. Here's just a snippet: "Kok argues that this attribution may not be unlikely at all, especially considering how the relationship between Mark and Peter was understood. Remember that the Gospel of Mark was not a popular text among the patristic writers, and a lot of their interest in claiming apostolic authority for the text was because it was, as Kok describes, a “prestige good” and “collectible.” But it still took back seat to the other canonical Gospels in terms of its theological influence. A text associated with a disciple like Peter, but not actually written by the Peter, could allow for a greater distance between the text and the disciple’s teachings, which could account for many of the shortcomings in Mark."

      He apparently argues against the authenticity of the link to Peter with statistics on how infrequently the work is actually cited by the Fathers. If you read the review, it seems that his arguments concerning Matthew and Luke's amplification of Mark's seemingly "low" or problematic Christology could serve as alternative reasons for the lack of citation. He argues that Mark was being used to justify adoptionist & separationist Christological heresies, and, it being such an early Gospel, this was the motive to legitimize it - essentially laying claim to it - by attributing it to an associate of Peter. This seems an odd move in itself - falsely attributing authorship to a document that was already apparently causing issues. I'm not sure how that really solves any problems. Why lend it even more legitimacy if its problematic?

      Reading through it all, it seems like a bit of a conspiracy theory.

    4. I haven't had a chance to read about Kok, but on your description his thesis sounds vaguely like the Bauer thesis, or assumes the Bauer thesis? If so, then a book like The Heresy of Orthodoxy might be useful to read.

  2. Kok shows up to answer questions on Κέλσος. This is very revealing. A reader comments: “I’m not sure why an assertion of a connection to Peter would serve anyone trying to appropriate GMark to their own Christian group. ‘Heretical’ Christians could invoke Peter’s authority too, could they not? I’m not exactly following the argument there.”

    Kok's answer: "One of the main strategies that the centrist or proto-Orthodox used to defend themselves against rival Christian groups was the whole notion of “apostolic succession”, which means that there was a chain of succession of Christian leaders going back to the apostles and that “orthodox” doctrine/interpretations were carefully handed down against later schismatic “heretical” groups. These Christians attached apostolic names to the canonical Gospels (i.e. the Apostles Matthew and John, Mark as the interpreter of Peter and Luke as the interpreter of Paul) in order to legitimate these texts as “apostolic/orthodox” and to claim that they were the rightful interpreters of these texts as the apostles’ true successors. Of course, you are right to note that their opponents also claimed their own writings went back to Peter’s authority, but the proto-Orthodox response would be to just deny that is the case. For instance, in the case of the Gospel of Peter, the bishop Serapion initially permitted it to be read, but when he thought that the Gospel taught docetism (i.e. denied Jesus’ real humanity) he rejected it as unorthodox and denied that Peter could have written it."

    Um, is it me, or did Kok just really not understand the question/issue? Since he is arguing that Mark lent itself to heretical Christologies, it would seem the strategy would be for the Church to simply deny that it was Apostolic. Or, at a minimum, leave it unattributed so that it would not be seen as trumping Matthew for instance.

    1. I can see how attributing the first Gospel to Peter would legitimate it. But attributing it to Mark is a very roundabout way of deriving a Petrine pedigree or Petrine imprimatur. If one is going to resort to a pseudonym to legitimate it, why that convoluted connection?

    2. BTW, when I refer to Mark as the first Gospel, I mean "first" in the chronology of composition. The first canonical Gospel to be written. Not first in an editorial sequence (Matthew>Mark>Luke>John).

  3. Alex,

    Somebody on Facebook asked me about the article you linked a few months ago. I'll copy and paste the response I wrote on that occasion. Since the text won't fit within the word limits of a single comment here, I'll break it down and put it into a few comments:

    I haven't read Kok's book. I have read Ferguson's article. There are a lot of problems with it.

    He doesn't provide much of an explanation of why the second gospel was so influential and why the early Christians had so much interest in retaining it to begin with. The traditional view of the gospel's origins makes more sense of that situation.

    The hypothesis of anonymous gospels is highly unlikely. Ferguson doesn't interact with the arguments Martin Hengel and others have raised against it. I recently wrote a response to Bart Ehrman on the subject, and much of what I say there is applicable to Ferguson's piece:


    Ferguson's speculation that the Markan tradition "originated in Irenaeus" is false, not only because of evidence from sources outside of Irenaeus, but also because of what we know of Irenaeus himself. As Hengel noted:

    "Claus Thornton has shown that this [a passage in Irenaeus about gospel authorship] is an earlier tradition, which must be taken seriously; as the geographical references and references to persons show, it is written throughout from a Roman perspective....As Thornton has demonstrated, it corresponds to the short notes about authors in the catalogues of ancient libraries, of the kind that we know, say, from the Museion in Alexandria. Presumably this information comes from the Roman church archive." (The Four Gospels And The One Gospel Of Jesus Christ [Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International, 2000], 35-6)

  4. >>>>>
    Irenaeus' arguments about the gospels, especially in book 3 of Against Heresies, make little sense if he or somebody else close to his time originated the Markan tradition. One of his often-repeated themes is how the gospels and other Biblical documents are so publicly known, widely accepted, and corroborated even by many of the heretics. He's arguing from ancient tradition, not recent speculations.

    Ferguson doesn't interact with the arguments Hengel, Richard Bauckham, et al. have put forward for the Petrine character of the second gospel.

    He repeats a lot of common skeptical objections related to the gospels and the patristic evidence, and he doesn't show much awareness of the counterarguments. He brings up the popular speculation that the document Papias refers to might not be our gospel of Mark, puts forward the astonishingly implausible hypothesis that all of the later sources were dependent on Papias, and repeats the usual objections about Papias' elder not being the apostle John, Papias' unreliability, Irenaeus' bad motives, Irenaeus' bad reasoning in choosing his gospel canon, etc. I've addressed those issues many times over the years, and you can find a collection of my relevant posts at:


    The articles are arranged alphabetically, so you can navigate them that way, or you can use the Ctrl F feature on your keyboard.

  5. >>>>>
    He suggests that the patristic sources cast doubt on whether the gospel of Mark was "fully accurate". They considered it scripture, and the mainstream patristic view of scripture was that it's inerrant. In my collection of posts linked above, see my post on inerrancy in the patristic era. We have good evidence that John viewed his own gospel as scripture:


    1 Timothy 5:18 refers to Luke's gospel as scripture. In Ferguson's own translation, Papias' elder refers to how Mark "accurately wrote as much as he remembered, yet not in order". There was no objection to Mark's accuracy, contrary to what Ferguson suggests elsewhere in his post. Quadratus, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, and other early sources group the gospels together, including Mark, which is more difficult to explain if they thought Mark was erroneous in some way in which one or more of the others weren't.

    If Mark was considered accurate and scripture by the early Christians (e.g., Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3:1:1), then why would they want to distance that gospel from Peter as much as Ferguson suggests? The question remains, if they were making up an author for a document so influential, which they considered Divinely-inspired scripture, why would they choose somebody as problematic as Mark? Here's an article I've written about how unlikely the choice of Mark would be if the early Christians were speculating or lying:


    As I note there, something like an attribution of the gospel to Silvanus or Andrew would have made far more sense than an attribution to Mark, if the early Christians were just speculating or lying.

  6. >>>>>
    Something Ferguson never addresses is why the early heretics, especially the ones the early Christians supposedly were responding to when fabricating their Markan traditions, never left any trace in the historical record of any objection to those traditions. We see objections to the authorship of the fourth gospel, the authorship of 2 Timothy, the authorship of Revelation, etc., but nothing about Mark or Peter as Mark's source. To the contrary, Markan authorship and the gospel's dependence on Peter are corroborated by early heretical and non-Christian sources, as I discuss in my response to Ehrman linked above.

    Ferguson claims that Kok's "interpretations of Irenaeus and Clement are undisputed". That's false. Kok has already corrected Ferguson, in the comments section below his post, regarding Clement. And Kok's interpretation of Irenaeus, at least as Ferguson describes it, has been widely disputed. See R.T. France's commentary on Mark (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2002), 35-41, for example. Furthermore, we have multiple lines of good evidence that Luke, which apparently used Mark as a source, was written no later than the mid 60s:


  7. My comments on Facebook quoted above were written in early September of last year. Later in the year, Ferguson added some material to the comments section of his thread.

    He brings up Hengel's work, but he doesn't address most of Hengel's arguments (what he says about ancient practices related to the naming of authors, how titles probably would have been used in early Christian libraries and church services, Tertullian's comments on literary titles, etc.). Ferguson writes:

    "NT scholar Michael Wolter argues that the titles could not have been added until, at the earliest, the first half of the 2nd century CE, primarily because the formula 'κατά (according to) + the author' only makes sense if it was added when there were multiple gospels in circulation."

    But the "gospel according to" concept could have arisen in oral contexts and in literary contexts other than that of our canonical gospels. Luke comments that many accounts were circulating in his day (Luke 1:1). And if Matthew and Luke were using Mark in the first century, then there were already multiple gospels known to some Christians that early. The idea that the need for distinguishing among the gospels by means of titles wouldn't have arisen until "at the earliest, the first half of the 2nd century CE" doesn't make sense.

    Furthermore, what about the other means of identifying a document's author, such as the ones Hengel and Bauckham discuss? What about oral reports of authorship, tags attached to documents, etc.?

  8. Ferguson acts as though it's sufficient for him to dismiss views like Hengel's because they aren't "necessarily" correct and there's no "definitive evidence" for them. But the issue here, as with history in general, is probability, not high probability or certainty. Even a slight probability is still a probability.

    Ferguson quotes Kok's comments about how the earliest titles of the gospels weren't "necessarily" the titles we see in the manuscript record, and he cites some later manuscripts that are exceptions to the rule. So what? The issue, again, is probability, not what's "necessarily" true or whether exceptions to a rule can be found. The manuscript record suggests that author names are the best candidates for the early titles of the gospels. Proposing some sort of radical discontinuity - as if the gospels first had titles other than the ones we know them by, then attained the traditional titles so widely and with so little dispute, with the alleged earlier titles leaving so little trace in the historical record - is deeply problematic.

    Kok goes on to say that there's no evidence that the traditional gospel titles "are independent of Papias". It's not as though we begin with a default assumption that the titles are dependent on Papias, then go about looking for any evidence that would overturn that starting point. Rather, the notion that Papias had that sort of influence, to determine gospel authorship attributions and/or gospel titles throughout the Christian world, is absurd in principle and contrary to the evidence. For example, here's an article I wrote last year about the influence Polycarp would have had on the authorship attributions of the New Testament documents:


    And Polycarp wouldn't have been alone. Other eyewitnesses and contemporaries of the apostles had to have lived into the second century. The idea that everybody, or almost everybody, would have been dependent on Papias alone for information on gospel authorship is implausible.

  9. Jason - excellent! Thx for sharing this. I have tried to post to Ferguson's blog to make some comments but they don't show up.

  10. "NT scholar Michael Wolter argues that the titles could not have been added until, at the earliest, the first half of the 2nd century CE, primarily because the formula 'κατά (according to) + the author' only makes sense if it was added when there were multiple gospels in circulation."

    I really like your response to this. I really don't even see the force of the initial argument though. You can't have a Gospel "according to" unless there are other accounts in circulation? I don't see why not. What if the person affixing the title just sees it as important to specify whose account this is?

  11. Jason- have you considered gathering up all your material on Gospel authorship and doing a book or an e-book?

    1. Alex,

      I appreciate the encouragement. I've sometimes put together collections of my material or Triablogue's material on issues like Biblical authorship, such as here, but I don't expect to be doing any books or e-books anytime soon.

  12. Great stuff here, Jason. Thanks for sharing!

    *** Funny note considering the OP, my spell check wanted to change "sharing" in my comment above to "Sharia"! ***